Abadan, Iran — The all-encompassing oily smokescreen that hid the blue sky above the Shatt al Arab waterway in the first weeks of the Gulf war has cleared. But today new fingers of smoke rise into the sky from both sides of the natural border between Iran and Iraq, demonstrating the peculiarities of this conflict, now in its 11th week.
The storage tanks of the Bawardh tank farm in southeast Abadan, blackened and partially melted by the flames, bear witness to the damage sustained by both countries' oil installations. So does the Iraqi offshore oil terminal, Mina al Bakr, at the mouth of the disputed waterway; it was attacked by the Iranian Air Force Dec. 9 and is still in flames.
Meanwhile, Abadan's nocturnal blackout is shattered by the raging fire in the besieged city's refinery, the result of the latest Iraqi pounding with artillery shells. The extent of the damage to the Mideast's largest refinery remains a carefully guarded secret.
Foreign reporters visiting Abadan Dec. 10 to 13 -- the first such visit in 21 months -- were not allowed anywhere near the refinery area. Iranian officials evaded questions regarding the effect of Iraqi attacks on Iran's oil installations.
Speaking to reporters in Abadan Dec. 11 the commander of Iran's southern front, Col. Nasir Shekariz, merely pointed out that "you can see the refinery is still burning."
Abadan remains one of the Gulf war's unsolved puzzles. Although situated in the border area, encircled by enemy forces, and almost constantly pounded by Iraqi artillery, Abadan is an extensively war-damaged but not war-devastated city.
Two of its four hospitals, the police headquarters, the local museum, and residential areas not far from the refinery have been hit by Iraqi artillery shells. (The burnt-out building of the Rex cinema in downtown Abadan where 470 people died in August 1978 in politically inspired arson still commemorates the sacrifices of the Islamic Revolution.) But Abadan's infrastructure appears to be largely repairable.
In a fiery speech Nov. 6, Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emphasized Abadan's importance in the Gulf war.
"I expect the Abadan siege to be broken, and I warn the Pasdars [ Revolutionary guards], the armed forces, and the commanders of the military forces that the siege must be broken," the Ayatollah said. "There must be no negligence . . . If they [the Iraqis] enter [Abadan], they will inflict losses on us. They must not allow them to enter Abadan. . ."
Twice Iraq's forces penetrated the city's boundaries, once by building a pontoon bridge across the Bahmanshir River. But on both occasions -- Oct. 17 and Oct. 24 -- Iranian defenders were able to force the Iraqis back.
Iranian military commanders believe that the Iraqis are using "Russians war tactics." According to Colonel Shekariz, "they call it the step-by-step advance." The colonel claims that "the Iraqi firepower is threefold relative to us."
Colonel Shekariz confirms that the nocturnal artillery duels in the Abadan area are the main thrust of the battle. "For the time being," the American-trained colonel adds, "we are fighting a defensive rather than an offensive battle. Usually we attack at night and put them under pressure. Most of the time they are forced to retreat with heavy casualties. In the past week we have advanced 700 meters."
Although the Iranian forces up until now have successfully prevented the Iraqi occupation of the city, Abadan remains a besieged center of population. Supplies and reinforcements are ferried by low-flying helicopters to a port just outside the city. (A two-day sandstorm Dec. 11 and 12 briefly interrupted this air connection.)
Civilians leaving Abadan often flee on dhows to the Iranian mainland or travel in small vehicles on an unsafe secondary road. Buses, cars, and trucks are covered with dried mud in an attempt to camouflage them.
Drawing a map, Colonel Shekariz points to the Zulfahri area along the northern bank of the Bahmanshir River, where Iran has been able to establish positions. "We are partially north of Zulfahri, and we are continuing the process [of breaking the siege]," he says.
Although the Iraqi troops have been forced back 4 kilometers from the Bahmanshir River, where Colonel Shekariz claims that 400 of them have been "surrounded," they still "partially" control the main roads from Abadan to Ahvaz and to Bandar Mashar.
"Although the Iraqis only partially control these roads, we prefer not to utilize them," says the colonel.
Combined units of Revolutionary Guards and armed forces personnel have dug trenches and established tank positions facing north toward the Abadan-Bandar Mashar road. But the Iraqis appeared to be close enough to detect the presence of the visiting group of foreign and Iranian reporters Dec. 9. As the group crossed the river in small rubber boats the Iraqis welcomed them with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, causing the death of one Revolutionary Guard.
Despite the continuing battle, life in Abadan in many ways appears to be normal. (On Dec. 12, Tehran radio reported seven killed and 67 wounded following Iraqi shelling of the Abadan bazaar.) Behind aluminum foil-covered windows, the remaining population endures the nightly artillery bombardments. At least one power station has been hit. But electricity and running water are still flowing. Shops in the center of town display a variety of goods.
"We had no problem whatsoever until the roads were closed," says Abadan's bearded young governor, Farivare Batmanglich. "After the blocking of the roads we were forced to seek new ways. Therefore, we [still] have no problems with food and supplies."
Unlike Khorramshahr, which two months ago already appeared to be a deserted city, Abadan has not been abandoned. Exact figures are hard to come by, but Governor Batmanglich estimates that 150,000 of the original 400,000 inhabitants of Abadan and its surrounding villages remain on the island enclosed by the Gulf and the Shatt al Arab, Bahmanshir, and Karun Rivers. Abadan Mayor Muhammad Jaaferi claims that 50,000 people still reside within the city boundaries.
"This is not a deserted city," says Governor Batmanglich. "We have to force the children, women, and old men to leave. The youngsters are fighting at the front."
A Friday morning stroll through the center of town seems to prove his point. Young men, clad in olive-green Army jackets, roam the remarkably clean streets in groups, seemingly relaxed. some groups, mostly women and children with their belongings tied in bundles, stand on street corners waiting for transportation out of the city.
"Abadan is a very safe city," says Mustafa Saranday, a heavy-set Revolutionary Guard with a military helmet half covering his bearded face and a knife and grenade hanging from his belt. "We have a line of soldiers and Revolutionary Guards standing by the [Shatt al Arab] river preventing the Iraqis from crossing."
Dr. Abbas Shaybani, coordinator of all military forces in the Abadan area and former minister of agriculture, adds: "We hope that Abadan will be a cemetary for the Iraqi forces."
Speaking to several hundred worshippers gathered Dec. 12 in Abadan's Behbahani Mosque, Friday prayer leader Hojatolislam Husseini Jalli warned that "We are confronted with the servants of Satan and therefore we must be united. We must not be afraid of death. Death is better than living under the boot of [ Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein. I would rather be killed than controlled by the imperialists . . . United we stand, divided we fall."
A young Iranian soldier stands up and shouts at the top of his voice: "We will not leave here until the Iraqis have been forced out of our territory." To southern front commander Colonel Sherakiz, this is only a question of time: "The tide of the war has definitely turned in our favor."